If you’ve seen the 1949 movie The Wizard of Oz, the experience of Dorothy’s transition from black-and-white Kansan fields to technicolor Oz feels miraculous. While it took Dorothy a tornado trip to break into color, the human eye and brain are built to experience color in fluid ways depending on our environments.
What We See When We See “Color”
When we look at color, we’re actually looking at light, which travels through the atmosphere by waves. The different lengths of the wave equal a different color. The human eye can see wavelengths between 380 nanometers (nm) and 750 nm, which Sir Isaac Newton discovered in 1666.
Objects appear colorful through the wavelengths that meet them. Some wavelengths are absorbed, but the ones that aren’t are reflected — and that’s what we recognize as “color.”
Name That Hue
With color being a facet of light, it makes sense that it’s harder to see in the dark. But why is it that certain people have trouble distinguishing certain colors? Both night vision and color blindness have to do with the construction of the human eye and its sight mechanisms.
But what if you can’t distinguish colors at all? Color blindness exists when there’s a fault in any of the cone development. Red-green color blindness is the most common: 8% of males — compared with 0.5% of females — have that error.
That Sunset, Though…
One of the most sight-worthy views — whether you’re at the beach, by a mountain, or up on a rooftop —is a sunset. If the sky is normally blue, what causes that light display? Well, when the sun is straight above at noon, the sun’s rays have the shortest path through the atmosphere, so their color shows up on the low (blue) end of the light spectrum. When the sun is at the edge of the horizon, it has more distance to travel, so the wavelengths get longer, and colors change from blue to red.
Look Out! (“Forbidden” Colors)
There are some colors that the human eye just can’t translate. UV and Infrared, for example, are colors bordering the visible spectrum, but human eyes aren’t sensitive enough to see them. Then there are the so-called “forbidden” colors, ones that the brain can’t merge even though optical illusions have demonstrated their existence.
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